Last Wednesday the issue of sex education in schools took centre stage for a time at the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

The committee was discussing a so-called ancillary recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly, which calls for improvements in sexual health and relationship education in schools and youth clubs, with particular reference to the areas of contraception and consent.

This may be an ancillary recommendation, but on Wednesday its importance was made clear.

"We’ve heard from a lot of experts," said chair of the committee Senator Catherine Noone, "and practically all have referred to the need for enhanced sex education as a way of reducing crisis pregnancies".

Officials from the Departments of Education, and Health addressed the committee. 

They explained that Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) was mandatory in schools, but with one caveat; that the ethos of the school could influence how the course content was delivered.

A Department of Education official explained, for instance, that while family planning, sexual orientation, and sexually transmitted infections had to be explored at second level, all this "could and should" take place "within the ethos and value system of the school". 

Consider that more than half of all second-level schools here are run by the Catholic Church, and have a Catholic ethos, and you’ll see why this might be a matter for concern.

And virtually every politician who questioned the civil servants on Wednesday expressed concern.

"Context is everything," declared Senator Paul Gavan of Sinn Féin. 

"Condoms are still not allowed as a method of birth control under the Catholic ethos," said Kate O’Connell of Fine Gael, who is also a pharmacist. "I’m concerned that the rhythm method or the withdrawal method or abstinence is being taught to children in this State." 

"It’s clear that we have very serious issues here," she said.

This was a view shared by the strong majority of politicians who asked questions at Wednesday’s session.

They probed and probed, but it was clear the answers they received from the civil servants did not inspire their confidence.

When Bríd Smith of Solidarity/People Before Profit asked was the system a good one, the answer was less than wholehearted. "We have made a lot of progress," the official began.

Ms O’Connell returned to this; do you think it’s right, she asked, that a school’s religious ethos should play such a role?

"That’s not for me to say," the official replied. "The ethos is a fact within our system," she added. 

The issue of outside agencies being brought in by schools to deliver Relationships and Sexuality Education was raised by the politicians.

The civil servants acknowledged that the State did not regulate these agencies, or their use by schools to deliver such vital programmes.

The agencies named at Wednesday’s hearing include the Catholic marriage agency Accord. 

RTÉ News asked Accord for information on the number of schools who avail of its programmes.

So far we have received figures for Dublin only. In 2016 Accord delivered programmes in 53 Dublin secondary schools and in 347 primary schools.

There are 98 Catholic secondary schools in Dublin, and 347 Catholic primary schools.

If we assume that the schools that availed of the services of this Catholic agency were all Catholic this means that more than half of all Catholic secondary schools and virtually every single Catholic primary school in Dublin paid an unregulated Catholic marriage agency to deliver vital information on sexual health and relationships to children here.

But is it only Catholic schools that use a Catholic agency to educate children in these matters?

Information received by Atheist Ireland in a Freedom of Information request, and followed up by RTÉ, shows that state-run schools in the ETB, formerly VEC, sector - schools that are supposed to be multi-denominational, not Catholic - are also using Accord to teach students about relationships and sexuality. 

Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board paid Accord €8,480 over four years to deliver programmes to students at four of its post-primary schools. These are state-run schools, not Catholic schools, and the money paid to Accord comes from state coffers.

Parents and others would be entitled to ask why the State is paying a Catholic agency to deliver sex education in a multi-denominational state school.

The subject of RSE and state-run schools was also highlighted in a tweet from a member of Atheist Ireland this week. 

The tweet related to Coachford College, a supposedly multi-denominational school which is run jointly by state body Cork ETB and by the Catholic Bishop of Cloyne.

On its website the college outlines principles that guide its RSE programme. "The human body, since it is sexual, expresses the call of men and women to reciprocal love," it states.

"Marriage [is] the natural context in which this self-giving love in its entirety is possible", it continues, "because essentially it is orientated both to the loving unity of the couple and to cooperation with God in bringing new human life into the world".

As if to leave absolutely no room for doubt the website continues: "Young people thus will be encouraged to value the gift of chastity... Intercourse is an expression of married love."

What would Kate O’Connell, and the other TDs and senators who expressed serious concern about sex education in schools here, make of that?